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Nostalgia and the Digital Man
We don't know who we are.
Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher throughout much of the 20th century (he died in 1980), and he laid the foundation for media ecology such that Neil Postman and others could build upon his cornerstone work.
I recently came across a television interview with McLuhan from 1977. The clip I found is only about six minutes long, but it is wonderful and I could write three different newsletters on it. I won’t.
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I just want to draw your attention to what he says at the end of the interview (the whole of which I’ve embedded at the bottom of this newsletter). He says, in the middle of a conversation we will likely re-engage later regarding our loss of identity:
One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia.
And so revivals in every phase of life today—revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything—we live by the revival. It tells us who we are, or were.
I am a sucker for nostalgia. I am a deeply nostalgic person. I love listening to music from my teenage years. I love playing video games I played when I was a child. I hold on to items that were important to me long ago that would be trash to anyone else.
I think it is no coincidence that I am also a very online person. I wonder if there is a positive correlation between how online an individual is and how nostalgic they are. I can attest that I am a very online, very nostalgic person. I do wonder if that is because I have lost who I am, in some sense.
Who I am is deeply ingrained with the collective media I consume through the social internet. I think in memes. A library of GIFs exists in my head—a library I access regularly in conversations with friends.
Are we nostalgic because we have in some sense lost ourselves, as McLuhan suggests?
I think maybe so. Or, at least we feel like we’ve lost ourselves, those of us who are nostalgic. Perhaps we haven’t “lost ourselves” so much has become unrecognizable to ourselves. The light speed with which we consume content and information today has, in a sense, left us longing for the simplicity of the past. When we knew who we were.
If you’re paying attention in popular culture right now, you’ll recognize that I am not the exception in my love for nostalgia. It seems like more than two-thirds of the movies and TV shows being created these days are revivals of old IPs or otherwise tapping into the nostalgia of 80s and 90s kids.
I’ve seen a lot of cultural and entertainment commentators recently bemoaning how entertainment companies are just re-making old, successful content rather than creating new worlds, while at the same time recognizing the reality that re-making old stuff is usually the smarter bet than making something totally new. It seems that, as a culture, we are obsessed with nostalgia, and more generally, with what we know. It’s safe, somewhat predictable, and comfortable.
And perhaps that is because our relationship with the social internet makes us all feel generally a bit unstable, unsure of who we are.
Here’s the full interview clip with McLuhan, the contents of which will likely come up again in a future newsletter:
I’m only writing two.